“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Part II: Day 45, The Storm, the Wall, and Some Good Stuff in Between

Driving back on Tuesday from Zoe's acupuncture appointment in Vermont, after a lovely and restful Memorial Weekend at my sister's, the receptionist said: "Did you hear about the tornado warnings?"

"Really, where?" my husband asked.

She looked again at the computer.

"Uh, where you are headed right now, I think," she said.  "And all of Vermont too."  She read more about what was expected.  Torrential rain, high winds, thunder, hail.

"Figures," I said. 

For the past hour, Dr. Bond (Emily) had treated Zoe for her cancer, but also for anxiety: the first time this has been necessary.  Zoe had whimpered much of the way there from Massachusetts and had cried all the way to Massachusetts on Saturday.  Zoe's cry is very high-pitched.  It's plaintive.  Piercing.  Heartbreaking.  Normally she's a great traveler and she only whines and cries when she has to pee, or if she thinks she's going to be left behind.  Not this weekend.  This was not the same dog who, two years earlier, spent seven months in France, eleven weeks of which we wandered from place to place by car and boat, never staying anywhere for longer than a week.  This was not the dog who bounded fiercely through Alpine meadows and leapt with joy into the Mediterranean Sea.

I felt like we'd already been riding a storm cloud for days.  Now we were driving into one.

*   *   *   *   *

Just before Memorial Day weekend, I hit the wall:

Meditation: a patch on stress relief, nothing deep, nothing life-altering, and definitely nothing blissful.

Writing: A few very good days, but by Saturday morning I was too worried about Zoe to go in deep.  To write well I have to loosen the reins, forget people might read it and just follow the trail of imagery and insight and crazy loop-de-loops of insight and metaphor and characters behaving badly or surprisingly well and let them decide what to do and when.

To do this well I have to let go.  But I felt with every other part of me--the part not writing the novel, anyway--like I had to hang on tight.

In meditation class, our teacher Rebecca says that when she is with us as our teacher and guide she goes into a "light" meditation state so that she can be ready and alert if any of us needs her.  People can go to all kinds of wild places in meditation, and sometimes it's frightening.  She said, "I also need to be aware if anyone walks into the door."  She keeps the place safe for all of us.

Perhaps that's the role I'm performing for my dog these days and I really don't feel like I can abandon that post, even if she's outside or in the house and I'm in my studio.

Well, that's one way of looking at it.  The other is that I've been a frantic worrier.  Since Sunday night, May 20th, the evening after our college's commencement, Zoe wasn't doing very well and I didn't know how to help her.  I spent hours of the day looking on the internet about the side effects of Kinavet, Zoe's new drug, and not getting anywhere.

Something had changed last week, after we started her on this new drug.  She stopped trusting us.  She wouldn't eat.  She looked at her bowl with contempt.  She didn't want to just hang out with us and frolic.  She was still energetic and content on walks, and she perked up now and then--enough to tell us it wasn't The End--but something was markedly different, and we had nothing in our bag of tricks to help her.  When I found out she had protozoa in her system I was very relieved, thinking we had the reason, something ordinary and treatable, for her stomach woes, but even then we knew the new medicine had to be at least partly to blame.

It's one thing to have an adverse reaction to a drug.  That's a potentially big problem, but we could always go back to the drug she was on earlier this spring.  The real issue was this: had the disease advanced enough to make her feel bad?  Was she suffering? 

She was picky and finicky for a few days, but then Zoe went on strike.  She got all Bartleby-the-Scrivener on us and said, I would prefer not to. 

Her doggy health food diet, with all the non-wheat grains, the raw meats, the vegetables, the herbs?

She would not go near it.

She'd been so compliant.  We could mix all those Chinese herbs right into her food most of the time and if we topped up her food with a little bit of something she wanted, more meat, or some nibbles of cheese, or broth, she would ignore the ick factor and just go for it.

Then I spent a great deal of energy trying to decide if it was mean and evil of me to ask my husband to put the Chinese herbs and potions into a syringe and get them in her that way.  Mean and evil to make him do it, because I just can't, and mean and evil to subject her to more invasive stuff when all she wanted to do was lie in the shade and be a normal dog on a hot summer day.

But then again, this method of getting down the herbs works for Milo, Zoe's doggy friend in Vermont who has the same kind of cancer.  So why can't we make this work for us?

The two of me duked it out.

Meanwhile, my husband started tearing apart the side of our house so that we can insulate it better and put up some siding along the deck.  He's taking good care of us.  It's an important project and this is the right time to get it done. But here's the thing: our house's exterior looked the way I was starting to feel inside.  Like life as I had known it was now a demolition project.

This is all because Zoe had stopped trusting us, had decided her silver bowl was radioactive, and seemed also to lose her appetite for cuddling and play. 

I'd been waiting all week to hear back from the oncologist about this new drug and its potential side effects and I felt so helpless.   I wanted to help my dog but I didn't know how.  And it had all happened so suddenly.  She was completely fine, and then she wasn't, and it felt like there was nothing gradual in between.

I'd written about the whole "sudden decline" factor in a recent post: of the dogs of friends going downhill without warning, the dogs of friends who were left reeling in shock.  In writing that post I was rehearsing for the moment when I, too, will have to let go and say good-bye to our pup, but when I wrote it Zoe was perfectly fine so I could allow myself the luxury of imagining the worst--we weren't there yet.

When a week had passed without hearing from the oncologist I sent another message.  I should have called too, I should have called on Friday, but I was running around getting errands done then and it's never possible to get through to her without waiting for several hours and then I just feel frustrated and anxious.  At least, though, if I had called I would have been on her radar.  And I had total faith that I'd get an e-mail message.  The vet techs have always been great about this.  So Saturday morning I sent an e-mail thinking that maybe at the very least someone would call me on Tuesday, after the long weekend.  But when I sent my message I got the oncologist's vacation message which said that she was going to be gone all of the coming week and wouldn't be back until a few days after Zoe's drugs had run out.  That's when I panicked, big time.

It was a holiday weekend, no one would be around to help, and I thought I was going to have drive for hours and hours to some oncology vet in a distant state to get Zoe seen to.  I wrote a desperate e-mail to a vet that I thought was at the Cornell veterinary school, but was actually in Connecticut.  I looked into animal hospital hours in Massachusetts, where we were heading.  I thought about Tufts in Boston, where my sister's dog got really good care when she had a wood sliver lodged in her throat and had to have it surgically removed.  I was thinking I had to do something Big, something Drastic.  I was thinking if I didn't solve this problem that very morning All Would Be Lost.

It was a bad flashback, a deja-vu to a place I thought I'd long since left behind.  I knew what was happening even while it was happening, but I couldn't make it stop.  I felt the same panic, the same heart elevating, adrenalin-rushing-through-the-body dread and fear I felt when our mother would have psychotic episodes when I was a child and no reliable adult was available to intervene.  It was that same feeling of How can I help her?  Who will come to our aid?  How can I make a medical decision for her when I don't understand what's happening?  I have to fix this.  I don't know how to fix this.  I have to fix this.  I don't know how.

It was worse than this, actually, this Saturday morning meltdown, because going back to this place just felt so ridiculous and overblown and melodramatic and wrong.  I thought, my goodness, if you're going to have a panic attack because your dog has lost her appetite and is acting paranoid now in your company, how are you going to be able to help your husband in a time of crisis?  What good will you to be your sister or friends when they fall apart? Pull yourself together, woman!

And so on.

It's one thing to have a flashback to the places that scare us.  It's another thing to judge that experience as inappropriate and then beat ourselves up for having it while we are having it.

Honestly, in the eleven months since I first noticed Zoe limping, I've experienced many days of great sorrow, a handful of crying jags, but I don't think I ever went through a panicky meltdown quite like the one I had Saturday morning when I thought our medical support system was also in the hands of the demolition crew, and my husband and I were on our own, the dog was going to suffer now, and we didn't know what to do.

Somehow I pulled myself together and helped my husband pack up the car.

Zoe cried the whole six and a half hours the whole way there.  She has never behaved like this in her life.

I said to myself, This dog sounds like how I feel right now.  We are each other's mirror.  We're in a co-dependent relationship.  We need a therapist. 

And so on.

When we got to my sister and brother-in-law's house, Zoe seemed pleased to be there, as ever, but she didn't do what she usually does: run a lap around the house, then charge in, pull all the plush squeaky toys out of Sadie's box because she can, and say, Queen Alpha is baaack, hellooo! 

She wandered in, wagged her tail in a blasé way, then headed out to the deck to rest.  I need a break from my frantic person, she seemed to be saying.  I need some space.  Can I get a little air, please?  

It occurred to me then that just as she had seemed like a stranger to me all week, perhaps, in my panicked state, I had seemed like a stranger to her.

And then something shifted a little--the change of venue was probably what we all needed.  That night we realized that Zoe would eat if we gave her dog food and cat food from a can.  And if we put it in a different bowl, not the silver one which she now associates with All Bad Things.  There was nothing wrong with her appetite.  She was hungry.  She was just like a kid who says Enough of the spelt and spirolina and lentil cutlets!  I want a cheeseburger and fries and coke like a normal kid.   You people are freaks! 

Zoe had hit the wall too.  She'd been on her best behavior, she'd been strong and resilient and compliant for so long.  Now, it seemed, she just wanted us to treat her like a typical dog.  A regular dog, who eats regular dog food, and hangs out, and walks, and isn't fussed over, and is permitted the luxury of having bad moods without it meaning The End is Near.

So we gave her a day off, a Sunday sabbatical, from the new drug, Kinavet.  And we haven't given her any herbal treatments since.  I know they help her with her vitality and keep her immune system strong, but what we need now even more than that is for our relationship with her to be strong, and that means we do it her way.  We need her to trust us.  We need her to feel safe with us.  At the vet's on Tuesday morning, Emily suggested we put the herbs in capsules and I'm going to do that tomorrow.  She's really good about taking pills in little balls of cream cheese or peanut butter.  But the herbals in caps will mean 12 pills a day, and we'll just have to see how that goes.  If it doesn't work out, I'm not going to sweat it.

She needs to have a happy, uncomplicated doggy life until it's time to say good-bye.

And here's the thing:  Once we decided to give her a day off from drugs and to let her eat whatever she wants to eat and to take a little sabbatical from the herbs, we got our dog back.  She became our sweet, mellow Zoe again.

We walked our usual five miles a day.

She swam.

She played with Sadie and they fought their usual tug-of-war for the ball.

She found a cool spot in the iris bed and posed for us.

She rolled in the wood chip pile and gave us her goo-goo I know I'm Adorable come hither look.

My friend Sara told me this wise thing on Monday, when we met at the Leverett Coop for a walk in the woods and lunch: "Whatever your emotional baggage is, even if you think you're not carrying it around any more, it's going to hit you when you have a medical emergency with your loved one if no one comes to your aid."  She told me a terrifying story about how her mom had had surgery and then later went into withdrawal from the pain medication and went through what seemed at the time like a psychotic episode.  No one at the hospital had warned her that this could happen.  And the only thing she could do was to take her mom to an emergency room and sit with her for seven hours until someone was willing to see her and prescribe that drug again.  "When you are in a situation like this and you feel helpless, everything from your past comes out.  You may think you're over something, that you've left it long behind you, and then it's back," she said.

Then she told me how a few years ago she had helped her mom with a medical crisis and for that one she'd held it together just fine, but when she flew home to find out a kitten she had rescued was in serious trouble she completely fell apart.  "I don't cry about the people I love the way I did with this helpless little animal," she said.  "I think it has to do with the fact that our relationships with people are complicated.  But with these little animals we love . . ."

 "They're our hearts," I said.  "They're the furry little loving part of us.  We give them unconditional love and they give it back in a way that people just can't.  So when they are suffering, and we feel helpless because we can't make them feel better, we feel our emotions without any defenses."

The weekend was just what the three of us needed.  Zoe got to be herself again.  My husband got to rest his back after all the demolition work on the house.  I worked on my novel and got a lot of sleep and had other people help keep an eye on our girl--people who love her, whom she loves as much as she loves us.  By the time we were packing up to go home on Tuesday, I felt strong and peaceful again.  Zoe was fine.  She was our old dog again.  Nothing was wrong with her appetite--she just wanted to call the shots.  She still had her zest for life.

And then I found out that our oncologist had, indeed, tried to get in touch with me.  She had left two messages on my cell phone on Monday--that's usually her day off, so I hadn't expected this--and she promised a long, detailed conversation.  I had felt completely abandoned on Saturday, and now, a few days later, I got into the car to drive home with the terrible sinking realization that I was now the weak link in the chain, I had dropped the ball.  I didn't realize it at the time, but we hadn't had cell phone coverage where we'd been frolicking for much of the weekend.  The phone was by my side when the calls came but the phone never rang.

And now this person I so needed to speak to was on vacation and I was back where I'd started: the drugs were running out and I didn't know what to do.

This cancer is aggressive.  A few days without the medication might mean that Zoe's tumors blow up in no time at all.

This time I had screwed up.  All because of technology.  In Massachusetts I hadn't been able to get on the internet either--something wonky with my sister's new server--and I hadn't pushed it, or asked to borrow her laptop, because to be honest, it was nice to take a rest, have a holiday weekend without being plugged in.  If I had checked e-mail I would have known the call was coming.

I had now missed the call I'd been waiting for for more than a week, and we were in a bind.

What were we going to do?

*   *   *   *   *

This is what the sky and clouds looked like when we left Vermont and drove into Northern New York:

 Zoe was in the back seat and as the heavens opened, she started to whine.  We still had another three hours until we had to go home to our messy house where there are boards and bricks everywhere and not enough medicine for Zoe or a plan.

I took these pictures, and I prayed.  I was really pissed off, if you want to know the truth.  I did not have the proper attitude of gratitude.  I did not feel the least bit zen.  My attitude was, fuck that whole letting go thing.  Fuck the whole attachment is suffering thing.  Don't expect me to be so good.  I need to be snarky here.  I need to be mad.  I'm tired of being resilient and positive.  Let me just sink into this sinkhole for a few minutes and spew a little, okay? 

I looked back over the weekend.  I had gone three mornings in a row without meditating, which is the longest I've gone in a year.  I was on strike, in my own way, just as Zoe had been.  And now I looked at the sky, and I said, Really?  Seriously?  You're going to give this just-back-from-freaked-out-dog and her just-back-from-freaked-out-person and her just-back-from-trying-to-calm-down-freaked-out-person-and dog husband a friggin' tornado now?  Are you fucking kidding me?

Then I thought, okay.  Let's try something else.  I closed my eyes and counted my breaths, basically just to stop from hyperventilating.  I got my feet up into half-lotus on my car seat and meditated for a while, using the top-secret mantra my teacher gave us in the meditation tune-up class.

I looked outside at the pouring rain and then I asked my husband if he felt okay driving.  He said yes.  We were prepared to find a hotel somewhere if we had to but we were way out in the sticks.

But then I asked the universe, god = dog = love, the force of nature and animals, a little more nicely to give us a break.

And I started to feel better.  I said the mantra in my head for a while.  I breathed slowly.  Zoe stopped whining the minute my mood lifted.  It was that instantaneous.

The storm blew West and wreaked havoc on Plattsburgh, which was maybe fifteen miles from where we were at the time.

"It was like threading the eye of a needle," my husband said the next morning.  "Just a few miles away from us they had ping-pong ball size hail, terrible winds, torrential rain.  Everything we were supposed to have, but didn't."

I'm sorry, Plattsburgh.  I really am.  But I'm really glad we drove home safely without incident.

While we were still in the car, watching storm clouds head west, I got on the phone for maybe the sixth time that day and spoke to Willow, one of our vet techs.  We agreed she would order us more of the Kinavet and we'll just take it day by day until after our oncologist comes back.

"I don't know what's happening around here, Natalia," she said.  "There are so many sick animals.  Donna and I worked on Friday until 11 o'clock at night.  The dogs just kept coming and coming.  We don't know why it's like this.  We don't know why there are so many sick animals.  We don't know why we are this busy.  It's just so overwhelming."

I heard the goodness and frustration in her voice and I wanted to hug her.  I wanted to hug and love up all the afflicted beings in this cancer-infested broken and beautiful world. Why are so many dogs and cats getting cancer?

I was way over being mad and sad and feeling like a helpless child again.  That was so four-days-ago. 

Zoe is a strong, resilient dog but she needs to be able to feel like crap sometimes without her humans falling apart. We have to be able to see her through good days and bad days and let her feel safe and loved and protected through every minute of them until the very end.

Usually I'm pretty good at doing this, but last week I hit the wall.

Wednesday morning I woke up to calm skies and the sight of the great blue heron standing in tree pose on the rocks in front of the river.

I meditated and wrote and played with Zoe and had lunch with a dear friend and felt like my old self again.

When I turned on the internet for the first time since Saturday morning I found Facebook friend messages and e-mails from people sending good wishes, wanting to say hey, and some nice notes from the oncologist and vet techs whom I thought had abandoned us.   I woke to the reminder once again that we're never ever as alone as we think we are.

Zoe holds up a mirror to me.  When I feel bad, she feels bad, and vice versa.  I think she sensed all my anxiety on Saturday and carried it all the way from New York to Massachusetts.

We've had it easy these past eleven months because while Zoe is exceedingly sensitive, she is also placid and sweet and mellow.  She's what some people I've met recently call "a heart dog"--full of emotion and empathy--and to make her happy I have to hide my storms from her and stay out of sight, then come out in better weather later for a cuddle.

I've managed to do that 90% of the time this year.  But on Saturday, that long car ride--there was nowhere to hide.

Last night in my meditation class, everyone told stories about the weeks we had just had.  One woman, a very devoted yoga practitioner and meditator for decades, said that she's had moments during her meditation recently where she just burst inexplicably into sobbing.  She has relived moments of feeling alone and abandoned and unloved from when she was only four years old.  Others described sensations of color and heat and movement--what the yogis describe as kundalini awakening--an experience and sensation that Elizabeth Gilbert documents really vividly in the India section of Eat, Pray, Love.   Others talked about how when they need meditation the most, they can't find time to do it, or they do it and don't go in very deeply.  Sometimes when I sit in meditation in our class all I feel is physical pain.  Others feel emotional pain.  Our teacher tells us that we're "clearing" the pain--physical and emotional--when this happens.  We're experiencing it so that we can release it, so that we won't have the same blocks, physically and emotionally, we've been carrying with us for so long.

Last Saturday when I relived that panic of being responsible for another being but not knowing how to help her, and not being able to find anyone to give me the advice I needed, I was very frightened of that emotion.  It's one thing to release something.  It's another to get stuck there again.  But at least I understood what was happening to me even when I couldn't move past it.  

Zoe's her old self again.  This morning when I woke up she thumped her tail and rolled on her back and grunted and leaned against me.  She's off walking with my husband on the gentlemen's walk as I conclude this post.

Last night when I came home from meditation class, I took her outside.  She didn't need to pee, and didn't want to roll around in the sweet-smelling grass.  She just wanted to stare at the sky.  She nudged her snout towards my studio door, lifted her head, and I said, Okay.  We climbed the stairs and sat out on the balcony for a while, watching the night sky.  It was beautiful.  The clouds had woven a fine net over everything, but now and then a bright star blinked past.  The black sky that wasn't covered with this soft net was shaped like a black dog's head, a dog with a long snout.  A plane was flying south, its light like a dog's eye moving, blinking, watching.

I don't know what's coming next, but I'm so grateful that we still have more time.


  1. You describe so well all this emotional turmoil ....

    I hope summer brings some peaceful moments.

  2. Thanks so much, Jo(e). Your own writing--your posts, your wisdom, your lovely photographs, your lyricism, your wit--bring me much solace.